Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deconstructed Elote aka My New Favorite Summer Salad

Elote is the Mexican name for grilled corn on the cob smothered with crumbly cheese, lime juice and a bit of cayenne pepper. It is a specialty in the Yucatan peninsula and lucky for me available in various restaurants and flea markets around Brooklyn, if you know where to look. However, if you haven't had one of these, please stop reading and go find one. It truly is one of the best street foods I can think of. It transforms a cob of corn into an explosion of flavor. I would make this treat for myself on a regular basis if I had access to a grill, but since I don't (sob, sob) I used to just wait until I went out for Mexican food to have it. That all changed last night.

I think I'll probably make this little beauty of a salad at least once a week, or as long as I have access to the fresh ingredients. My corn on the cob actually came from my CSA. Now if we could only grow avocados up there...

On the issue of eating locally, I have been thinking a lot about how cooking different cuisines can work with a sustainable cooking philosophy. There are always going to be certain essential ingredients that are not going to be available locally if you're preparing dishes from regions and countries with a different climate. In summer I tend to cook a lot of Mexican or Mediterranean dishes, and things like citrus, or olives, or certain cheeses aren't locally sourced in the Northeast where I'm located (as far as I know). It's in these situations I think there is room for flexibility. The goal is to support sustainable food and food purveyors by voting with your fork, but it is not to suffer in the process. I think eating local is the right thing to do, and if everyone did it there would be a change in our broken food system. But, I also think allowing yourself to purchase things that are unavailable in your region is alright too. Phew. Glad I got that off my chest.

Back to the dish. I got the idea for this salad after reading Mark Bittman's article last week in the NY Times Dining section. It was another one of his mega-lists of quick and genius flavor combinations. If you missed it, go and read it here. I know I'm going to use this list again and again when I'm having a cooking block. It's no coincidence that I picked his idea for deconstructing elote for a corn salad as my first dish. It is perfect for a picnic, or when you don't have access to a grill. Or for someone who just wants to eat with a fork.

Basically, you take the corn off the cob and quick roast it until it gets a bit brown in a skillet. This will cause a wonderful toasted corn smell to infuse your kitchen. Combine that with the essential components of elote, fresh lime juice, creamy queso fresco, and some heat (either cayenne pepper or chilis) and you have elote in a bowl. I added a few ingredients to plump up the salad, which just made it a bit more into a meal. Once done, take your salad and a cold cerveza onto your fire escape and you can almost pretend you are sitting in a plaza in Mexico as the sun sets. Buen provecho!

Deconstructed Elote Salad
I mixed the leftovers with some cooked shrimp for lunch today. Options are endless.

3 ears of corn
queso fresco (to taste)
fresh lime juice (about 1 big lime or 2 small ones)
1 jalepeño, deseeded and minced
cherry tomatoes (about 1/2 cup)
1 scallion, chopped
cilantro (small handful)

Take corn off the cob with a sharp knife. Place in a pan with some olive oil and cook stirring to avoid it sticking, till the kernels have a toasted look to them. Place in a
bowl and mix with the cheese and lime juice. Chop all the other ingredients
you're using and mix together. Easy Peasy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Simple Red Pickle

I really like pickled things. There are some vegetables I like even better pickled than raw, such as red onions. Lucky for me making pickled red onions is a snap. They will keep in the fridge for a few weeks (or more) to help add something extra to a sandwich, a salad, or whatever needs jazzing up. I have not ventured into the world of canning, yet, but these types of pickles do not need preserving that way. You can pretty much quick pickle almost anything, but red onions are the ones I think everyone should try. Yes, I know it's been done before. And, yes I know this isn't going to be an amazing culinary creation that will make you a bit hungrier as you read this. But, I can tell you that having this jar at your disposal, really does brighten up an otherwise dull dish. It's a condiment in the spirit of Fight Back Fridays as it is definitely better for you than any store bought, corn syrup loaded, preservative-laden, condiment you can purchase.

These red onions are tangy, and sweet. They have the satisfying pickle crunch that people love. They're acidic, and depending on your pickling spice of choice, possibly spicy. And, they're EASY!! Before I made these quick pickles I never would have guessed, how easy.
Take a red onion, or two, or three. Get out your sharpest knife, or a mandoline if you have one. Slice the onions as thin as you can get them.
Next, you have to prepare the pickling liquid. There are probably a million variations of spice and flavoring for this kind of thing. One constant is the acid. Either apple cider vinegar, or red wine vinegar, or even rice wine vinegar if you were doing an Asian-inspired pickle. This time I was going with a recipe I found in my awesome Greek cookbook, The Olive and the Caper, by Susanna Hoffman, so I used the red wine vinegar. Put one part vinegar to one part water into a pan with a couple of tablespoons of sugar. I used raw cane sugar, but I have tried brown sugar in the past, which was very sweet and delicious too. I threw in a bay leaf for flavor. You can throw in some peppercorns, or other whole spices of your choice. Bring the vinegar-water-spice mixture to a boil.
Once the sugar has dissolved, it's ready. Pour over the onions to let them marinate before refrigerating.
After about 45 minutes, you can use them right away. The flavor will get better over time though. So, pour the rest into a jar with a lid, and store in your fridge to use over, and over again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apricot Clafouti pour moi

Apricots are a gamble. They look to me to be a tiny, tasty smaller cousin of a peach. When I saw them in the farmer's market on Saturday, I assumed they would be as sweet as the fruit they were sharing the table with, cherries and plums. But, as Nigel Slater wrote about apricots in The Kitchen Diaries, "their eating quality depends more on luck than good judgement." Although this statement made me feel a bit better about my purchase, I still had a basket of gorgeous, but very tart, fruit on my hands. Personally, in the summer when fruit is as juicy as it is right now, I hesitate to bake it into anything. Sweet fruit is a dessert all on its own. Sunday night was a different story. I wasn't going to let my apricots go to waste. I took Nigel's advice and decided to "tease out their flavor with warmth" (why paraphrase when he says it better than I could?). I decided to go with a classic French dessert, the clafouti.

Clafoutis are traditionally made with cherries, but many different types of fruit would work well. For instance, Julia Child gives different variations using plums, pears or blackberries (although she didn't mention apricots, maybe it is not traditional). I took my recipe from the San Francisco Chronicle cookbook (my favorite favorite cookbook of all time). It is essentially a pancake-type of batter poured over fruit.

Some variations (I checked quite a few) use more cream than others and some seem more custard-y than others. Regardless, this was my first clafouti, so I guess I have plenty of room to try others. It did remind me of a Dutch-pancake, something I used to make for brunch sometimes, which is also a batter poured over fruit that puffs up as it bakes, and deflates quickly as it cools.

I think in the end my clafouti was satisfying, although the apricots were still quite tart even after baking. The batter was lighter than a cake, but more egg-y tasting than a pancake. If I replicated this dish, I think the apricots could benefit from marinating in some kirsh and sugar, a Julia Child suggestion from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I'll admit I probably should have had another basket of apricots to place in the cake to sufficiently cover the pan. But, then again, sometimes home cooking is about making due with what you have, and I only had one basket of apricots. Looking at the positives - I liked that it wasn't as heavy as a cobbler would have been, had I done that instead. I even think the leftovers could make an acceptable breakfast, and what's better than dessert for breakfast?

Fresh Apricot Clafouti
Adapted from a recipe by Georgeanne Brennan in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. I noted where I substituted ingredients, but if I set out to bake this again, it would be preferable to have the full-fat dairy ingredients.

1 cup milk (I used reduced-fat only cause that's all I had)
1/4 cup heavy cream (I used light cream)
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tablespoon almond extract (I used vanilla)
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
apricots, halved and pitted (enough to cover most of the pan)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a deep baking dish. Combine all the ingredients, except for the apricots in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until frothy. (Alternatively, mix all the ingredients in a blender if you prefer).

Pour just enough batter into the pan to cover the bottom with a layer about 1/4 inch deep. Put the pan into the oven for 2-5 minutes, or until just set.

Remove pan from the oven and arrange apricots face down evenly around the pan. Pour the remaining batter over the apricots. Bake until puffed and brown, about 30-35 minutes. It is done if a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve warm and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Veggie Medley a la Mexicana

I've only had two pickups from my CSA this summer, but for one person a half-share has been more than enough. To be honest, I got a bit nervous at the shear volume of vegetables at which I came home with the first time. The eggs also have been a lot for just me to consume quickly, but it has been interesting to dream up meals with a fridge overflowing with fresh herbs and really bright yellow farm fresh eggs (I've made enough omlettes in the past month that sometimes I feel like I'm working the brunch shift in my kitchen as my second job). This past week's share had me extremely excited to see the presence of one of my all-time favorite vegetables, the zucchini. These zucchini, were small baby globe shaped ones. Very cute. They were on my cutting board before I even unpacked the rest of the groceries that night.
I knew they were going to be prepared in a Mexican style because the night before I had made a big pot of black beans with some of the amazing fresh epazote, which is normally hard to find in NYC, that I also get from the CSA (For those unfamiliar with this herb, check out this explanation). Beans are better the next day, and in this case, I had planned to have them with whatever veggies I came home with.
A quick dice of these little guys (I wondered if they would taste the same as the long cucumber shaped zucchini - which they did) along side a jalapeño, some vine-ripened tomatoes, onions and garlic (both from the CSA too) and you're all set.
The tomatoes let off their juice and at the last minute I added some chopped epazote leaves and some oregano (dried from the last pickup). Of course you could use cilantro, I was all out that night. If you're the type that needs to add cheese to everything, which I am, crumble some queso fresco on top (or use feta if that's easier to find). It was exactly what a summer night meal should be, light and refreshing but also satisfying alongside the rice and beans. All I was missing was my sangria and a sunburn.

Veggie Medley a la Mexicana

Totally flexible veggie saute, this time it was with Mexican inspired flavors, but switch out the chili and epazote for some basil and thyme and it would be a la Provencal style. As the summer progresses some corn would have been a good addition.

1 medium yellow onion chopped
2-4 garlic cloves minced (or to taste)
1 jalepeño, de-seeded and de-veined, minced
3-4 zucchini (depending on their size) chopped
2 vine-ripened tomatoes chopped
Epazote, or Cilantro leaves chopped

Put about two big swirls of olive oil in a saute pan and allow to heat up. Once hot, add your onions and saute until they're translucent. Add the garlic and pepper, watching it so it doesn't burn, saute until fragrant. Then throw in the tomatoes and zucchini. Cover and allow to cook for about 5 minutes, or until zucchini is tender. Mix a bit, add a good amount of salt & pepper and fresh herbs. Stir and serve.